Irrigation water goes underground

John O'Connell/Capital Press Mary Velliotes, a Natural Resources Conservation Service soil conservationist, and BJ O'Doherty, Pocatello NRCS district conservationst, check out the manifold system where water enters the newly piped Arimo canal in southeast Idaho near McCammon.


Capital Press

McCAMMON, Idaho -- A southeast Idaho canal company has completed a $4.8 million project to pipe irrigation water formerly moved through a network of open ditches.

Officials with Portneuf Irrigating Co. say the upgrade to their Arimo Canal should conserve water and power and improve filtration to extend sprinkler life.

The project includes 6 miles of mainline pipe and 9 miles of spurs serving individual customers.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service covered most of the cost with money awarded in 2009, 2010 and 2013 through the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program, administered under the Environmental Quality Incentive Program. The canal company matched $1 million.

"To my knowledge, it's the biggest irrigation gravity pipeline system we've done in Idaho, ever," said NRCS state engineer Bruce Sandoval.

Farmers served by the canal -- which runs from the Portneuf River near Lava Hot Springs to south of Arimo and is 48 inches wide at its broadest point -- grow mostly small grains and alfalfa hay.

Construction commenced in the spring of 2012, with heavy building starting that October, and continued through the winter. The canal company's president, Chris Robinson, said the pipe is now full of water, and irrigation will commence soon.

His 25 shareholders have the option to pay a pro-rata rate toward expenses or to allow their shares to be diluted, creating additional shares to sell to members.

Many members haven't been fully utilizing their water anyway. Of the 3,117 acres the company is allowed to irrigate with its 55 cfs water right, 600 acres have been left dry, with irrigation rights protected in the Idaho Water Supply Bank for the past three years.

Robinson estimates having water in a pipe that can be shut off like a hose -- rather than flowing past users and entering Marsh Creek when pumps are off -- will reduce operational water losses by 25 percent. On average, he predicts about a 10 percent power reduction with a gravity-fed, enclosed system.

Robinson anticipates a reduction in his company's banked irrigation water due to the convenience and improved efficiency of the pipeline, combined with recent ownership changes among members toward "more aggressive" farmers. He's personally installed new pivots and pumps designed to take advantage of improved efficiencies.

"On my farm we're going back to irrigating what we used to irrigate," Robinson said.

Robinson said the piped system will keep out aquatic vegetation, which has clogged his pivots.

Cody Evans, whose family has a dairy and farm land served by the canal, said the piped system won't require screens at every farmer's pump, saving maintenance time.

"The big thing that's positive is the water will be a lot cleaner," Evans said, adding his pivots should wear less.

The piping project was initially a small part of a larger canal upgrade also involving the Portneuf Marsh Valley Canal Co. The other company withdrew its plans when legal challenges prevented the City of Pocatello from covering the match requirement by purchasing rights for the project's water savings.

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